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Intro: The choices that medieval people made about their dress (particularly their torso armour) existed at a nexus of cost, availability, social convention and class distinctions. Making a good choice from the torso armour on sale is arguably the most important part of putting together a fantasy costume or re-enactment impression – and to do it properly, you have to think like a medieval person would have. We’re going to look at the kind of things which conditioned those choices: medieval production methods and materials, utility and role on the battlefield, and social status. After that, you’ll be fully armed to make the perfect choice.

Medieval Materials and Modern Makers

A handful of technological developments combined from the 14th-century onwards to drive the wide availability of plate torso armour: the fining process, the trip hammer and the blast furnace. Before the high Middle Ages, iron was made from a bloomery, a primitive oven which drew air through itself by its conical shape (think of a miniature cooling-tower) – bloomeries produced a messy iron slag called a ‘bloom’ that had to be worked with hammers to beat off excess carbon and produce workable ‘wrought’ iron. Around 1300, these two parts of the iron-making process were split and specialised, with the inclusion of powered technology. Now, instead of a basic bloomery, iron ore would be put into an hourglass-shaped blast furnace, where the constant action of a bellows created a high-pressure, high-temperature environment to liquidise and drive impurities out of the iron – eventually, the bellows were even sometimes powered by a water wheel such as the ones designed by Florentine engineer Antonio Averlino in the early 15th-century. The pig iron flowing from the blast furnaces was then refined or ‘fined’ into wrought iron at a finery hearth, where the iron could be properly worked with a water-powered trip hammer to remove much more of the impurities.  This wrought iron could then be labouriously re-carburised with a controlled level of carbon, usually by heating the wrought iron with charcoal – the end result was hard, resilient high-carbon steel suitable for use in medieval torso armour.

However, as is obvious, this process was incredibly labour intensive, and only ever resulted in small quantities of steel being produced in Europe: we should always remember that full suits of plate armour were only ever accessible to a top-flight of elite nobles. Most footsoldiers would only have had access to a few choice pieces of plate armour – maybe a brigandine, or even a cuirass if they were lucky. When building your medieval historical re-enactment or LARP outfit, remember this key distinction in social class.

Almost all modern reproduction steel torso armours use modern materials that have been industrially produced in a far more efficient manner. As a general rule, spring steel (chromium-steel alloy) is the highest quality, lightest and most resilient – although this quality is usually reflected in the price. Stainless steel is next, followed by low-carbon mild steel being a good budget option. However, if you plan to use your armour for full-contact use, then you will require spring-steel or ‘battle-ready’ armour as a necessity: other materials will simply deform and require constant repair – which is what medieval knights had staff for!

As well, when choosing from leather torso armour for sale, it’s worth keeping the different qualities of leather in mind when setting your price points: from budget genuine leather, all the way up to top-grain and full-grain leathers.

Types of Medieval Torso Armour

The immediate forerunner to metal high-medieval torso armour is the ‘coat of plates’ - these were simple segmented plates of armour sewn or riveted into the surcoat out of necessity to defend from a new generation of medieval weaponry that was significantly more powerful than that of previous generations: namely, powerful puncturing weaponry like the warhammer and the longbow, which were capable of defeating chainmail. This transitional form of ad-hoc armour, which was often worn over the mail hauberk, can be seen amongst the finds recovered from the site of the Battle of Visby, which took place at in 1361 on the Swedish island of Gotland. Over the next century, reactive responses to the changing nature of the medieval battlefield developed into their own forms of armour: in one lineage, the plates got larger, eventually superseding the need for a cloth covering to become their own standalone armoured torso or cuirass; in another, the plates were reduced in size and were refined into an iron-lined jacket or brigantine.

Brigandines: Sharp Tailoring to Blunt Your Enemies’ Weapons

The brigandine is essentially a doublet, or medieval jacket, that has slender overlapping metal plates (or lames) riveted into its interior. From the outside, the brigandine looks like a substantial cloth jacket studded with rivets: functional versions of this armour were made merely of unadorned stout linen, canvas or leather.  Most often, it was worn over a gambeson (thick padded jacket), and mail shirt. The brigandine was the end result of experimentation by armoursmiths during what is known as the ‘transitional period’ of medieval armour, where chainmail was increasingly fallible under the assault of the heavier, more powerful crushing weaponry such as war hammers. From the surprisingly few surviving examples, we can tell that they varied somewhat in design and quality. Some, mirroring the early proto-brigantines recovered from the battlefield at Visby, are more like a coat of plates, with large, low quality plates with minimal shaping only partially covering the torso. Others are more complex, using smaller lames incorporating a triple-rivet scheme, which would have given the doublet an attractive geometrical design. Some incorporate almost a hybrid-armour system replacing the lames with riveted rows of scales almost closer to chainmail. Later examples also add extra protection in the armpits by fusing the lames on the flanks together into a single plate.

The brigantine’s main advantage over a harness (cuirass) of plate armour was cost and ease of manufacture. Each individual piece of plate armour had to fit the individual closely to be useable, and this required hours of bespoke work by a talented armoursmith to order: wrong sizing would result in articulations not working, joints being fatally exposed or at the very least debilitating sores. But any reasonably competent armourer could make an effective brigantine, since it did not rely on the shape of the plate for its fit, but instead relied on a much more easily shaped jacket. Knights of the period would usually bring their own armourer along on campaign as part of their household to constantly maintain their full plate armour, expertly repairing damage and adjusting fit – but a soldier could maintain his own brigantine with some basic sewing tools and a hammer to knock out any dings. This meant that by the 15th-century it had been adapted for use as torso armour by most footsoldiers in Europe – it provided good enough protection from high- and late-medieval weaponry to stand up in a scrap when in use by light-infantry, whilst simultaneously being flexible and light enough to be used by skirmishers and crossbowmen.

But, as we see with all medieval armour, military fashion has its imitators. The fancy lads of the medieval court would sport extravagant brocade brigandines richly decorated with embroidery or gold trimming. You can just make out the remains of the sumptuous red velvet which covered this Italian late-medieval brigandine in the British Museum; it must have taken weeks of work by a talented armoursmith to create.

Although it is a popular and attractive theory, the brigandine was not the armour of ‘brigands’. It seems to make intuitive sense that it was a sneaky torso armour, able to pass at a glance for a civilian doublet. However, this direct etymological link is very unlikely, since, like all plate armour, they were expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. Rather, a ‘brigaunt’ or ‘brigante’ was the name for an Italian mercenary light-infantryman or skirmisher in the 15th-century, from ‘brigare’, to fight or brawl. It was these soldiers, amongst whom a doublet riveted with lames was a popular alternative to a much more expensive harnesses of full plate, who gave the armour its name. It’s from the professional soldiers, who likely were perceived as little better than robbers and thieves by the population from whom they ‘requisitioned’ supplies and food when on campaign, that we get brigand as a word for nefarious ne’erdowells.

Steel Cuirasses: How To Look Expensive

The medieval cuirass was the logical extrapolation from earlier ad-hoc transitional armour forms which incorporated beaten plates of armour as a reactive response to increasingly dangerous medieval weaponry. As with most forms of torso armour, the cuirass can be somewhat nebulous to nail down, particularly in descriptions written by medieval writers who assume that the reader is already familiar with medieval arms and armour (why wouldn’t you be, eh?) - but the cuirass is defined by front-and-back protection of the torso and upper back, as distinct from a breastplate which only protects the former. Earlier cuirasses were single-pieces made from either a single piece of formed steel, or a backplate and breastplate forge-welded together with a head-hole, worn over gambeson and a long mail hauberk. Later from the 15th-century onward as armour-making developed into a highly technological process of creating an integrated armour system rather than a collection of single pieces, a two-piece ‘Gothic’ construction consisting of a separate breastplate and backplate hinged, riveted or strapped together, became possible. A startling example of this zenith of torso armour design is the suit of late 15th-century Gothic plate which overlooks the Grand Staircase at Windsor Castle.

Cuirasses did not encase the whole body; most designs outside of heavy specialised tournament armour for extremely single-purpose jousting use ended below bottom of the ribcage in order to give  the best possible degree of mobility. The abdomen and hips would have been protected by either the lower half of the mail hauberk in the earlier period, or plate faulds and tassets as plate armour increased in sophistication.

Initially, the cuirass was worn like an extra layer underneath the emblazoned surcoat, but as the medieval period progressed, the cuirass (along with platemail in general) became a symbol of status and power to be displayed in itself, and the surcoat was discarded in favour of displaying the raw plate. Only the very wealthiest of nobles could have afforded a full harness of plate: the maintenance regime and constant adjustment required would have been well-known, and implied the disposable wealth that one could spend on the requisite infrastructure. Think of it as the medieval equivalent of a helicopter or track-day car, which modern billionaires can just hand off to their staff to do the complex work of maintenance and transportation in between use. When choosing from the torso armour for sale in constructing your medieval re-enactment impression or LARP outfit, remember that it was a rare commoner who could afford to acquire and maintain a cuirass: your character’s nobility will shine with the polish of their cuirass torso armour.

Leather Jerkins: A Jacket of All Trades

At the same time, other forms of medieval torso armour remained for other uses. For the majority of medieval soldiers, heavy steel plate armour remained far too expensive, as well as undesirable for light infantry and skirmishers requiring mobility: it was commonly used by hunters, trackers and scouts. Boiled leather, often referred to in medieval sources by the French term cuir bouilli or the Anglicised curboilly, remained a staple material for torso armour throughout the period. If you are seeking to portray a lower-status character or one of non-military background, a jerkin of curboilly is an excellent choice: it was widely available to commoners, was rugged enough for manual work and provided stout protection against any brigands (who definitely weren’t wearing brigandines).

Panic At The Torso

Now we’ve looked at medieval torso armour in detail, you have everything you need to make an informed choice. Are you going to go with a faithful battle-ready cuirass for your knight’s combat ensemble, a display reproduction brigantine for your man-at-arms impression, or a medieval fantasy leather jacket to portray your elven hunter? Browse and take your time, whilst keeping in mind the questions of status, materials and cost that we’ve talked about here.